The Instant City—Geodesign and Urban Planning

Elliot Hartley, director of Garsdale Design Limited, demonstrates how he uses geodesign and CityEngine in his project planning workflows.

Jan 25th, 2013

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00:01My name is Elliot, and I'm a director of Garsdale Design Limited.

00:06We're a small, family-run professional planning and architectural consultancy that specializes in Middle East city master planning.

00:13As you can see, we're not exactly a large multinational.

00:17That's our office there; we're in a converted traditional Yorkshire dales barn, so there you go. It's not an office block, is it?

00:29So let's start with an outline of the presentation.

00:32Apologies if it goes on a bit, but I think in this presentation, I'm just going to stick to talking...

00:39...about the workflows and practices I know best, rather than talk to you about the academic theory behind them.

00:46As I work in a small consultancy, we're concerned with a lot of practical things, for instance, managing our workloads...

00:54...and juggling our multiple roles as inevitably characterize a small office.

00:59On a professional level, workflows are what really concern me.

01:03I'm interested in how we can extract value from our digital work and get from A to B.

01:09This is really a presentation about my journey, and until relatively recently... whole perspective on how I work has been turned on its head, so please, follow me through the journey I've taken.

01:26So there really are two types of workflow that take place in our office - firstly, a main project workflow...

01:33...which is linear with defined start and end points, often designated by the client and the project's terms of reference.

01:43Secondly, there are process workflows that are often the small, iterative evaluations associated with particular tasks.

01:52These might be population modeling in spreadsheets, or at the detailed design stages, they include sketching and CAD work.

02:00We generally finish one phase of a project and use the outputs of that to inform the next stage.

02:07Ultimately, the smooth flow of data through our systems is critical.

02:13It's often when different types of work of data come together that it gets difficult.

02:21So let me start with the main work that we do now and the workflows that we've been using.

02:26In my office, we undertake a variety of work, from the very small single residential development up to region-wide structure plans.

02:33I think what we've learned recently is a question of scale and planning at the appropriate scale...

02:39...and that's come off of yesterday's presentation certainly.

02:46But the projects that define and consume us at the moment are city master planning projects. Currently, these are in Iraq.

02:53As you can see from the slide, we have a fairly linear approach to the process.

02:57This is not only defined by the client and the contract but is also how we were traditionally doing many planning projects.

03:03Each stage in this example has a proper report and associated spreadsheet tables, writing, and of course mapping.

03:11What many would see as the creative work is in the later phases where we start designing urban areas...

03:17...either at a strategic or detailed level.

03:19Sorry to all you spreadsheet power users out there. I know you can get quite creative with it...

03:24...but it really is the drawing elements that are where our creativity comes out.

03:31Our traditional workflows do work, but increasingly, they are buckling under the weight of information we now have at our fingertips...

03:41...thanks to the power of technology and, of course, GIS, as well as changing attitudes to data ownership.

03:49So sometimes the amount of incoming data for a project feels a bit like this.

03:55At the beginning of a project, there may be drought, but that quickly gives way to a torrent.

04:02So ArcGIS is used to manage all our geographic data that comes from a variety of sources...

04:09...householder surveys, old AutoCAD drawings, and often, quite a lot of shapefiles that have been digitized from old paper maps.

04:16Difficulties such as data quality are inevitable with our diverse projects.

04:21Our Iraqi partners do amazing work translating Arabic data into English, but we still have some guesswork to do... extract the value of that work.

04:31So it's managing the changing nature of some of our data is one of the key challenges we face.

04:40So needless to say, cities don't stand still politely waiting for our project to finish.

04:45It'd be nice, but they just don't, especially in Iraq, where there's been a desperate need for infrastructure projects.

04:51It's a brave person who stands up and says, "Don't build that sewage treatment plant or road until the master plan is ready.

04:59"Oh, and that will take a couple of years." You just can't say that.

05:02So our work goes in tandem with the normal growth of a city, as well as major construction and infrastructure projects.

05:09This guarantees our master plan is out of date before it is adopted.

05:12But don't worry - part of these projects is about training the Iraqi planning departments to manage our master plans...

05:19...knowing how to update them.

05:21In a real sense, we teach them to think in terms of process rather than product.

05:26A master plan is not a blueprint.

05:33So our clients in Iraq are mostly planners and politicians.

05:37Like in any country, they are educated, active, and eager to improve their cities, albeit in difficult, sometimes hostile, environments.

05:44Have you ever been to a local planning committee meeting? They're fairly hostile environments, you know?

05:52So client requests are part of this process.

05:55As a project progresses and plans become more evolved, the planning teams in the cities involved...

06:00...send in requests for advice in certain sites to ensure compliance with the emerging master plan.

06:07The photos that you see here are recent visits of our clients and Iraqi partners who came to the UK for training...

06:13...and you can see two of our younger staff there - my daughters.

06:21So all of our projects of course have deadlines, but the nature of development means that our approach has evolved to be flexible.

06:30We always expect changes, and inevitably, many occur just prior to submission, so right down at the end, right when you don't need them.

06:38Throughout our projects, we have always looked at ways to speed up our visual presentations.

06:43In terms of workload, they can take up quite a bit of time but are relatively low in importance...

06:48...when it comes to the actual analytical side of our work.

06:51Three-D imagery has always been part of this visual mix, and clients get excited by it and have now come to expect such visualizations.

06:59Try handing in just a 2D map, and you're bound to get asked what it would look like in 3D anyway. So it's important.

07:08We've recently completed the Nasiriyah city master plan in Dhi Qar Province in south of Iraq...

07:14...and are currently in the middle of preparing three master plans for cities in Wasit.

07:20In fact, I was working on them prior to coming here.

07:24Bit of a bad time to come out in a conference right at the end of a particular phase, but there you go.

07:31This means that we need to have a wide variety of visualizations produced toward the end of these projects.

07:36We produce a range of presentational materials to be included in the final report, including wall display maps and 3D visualizations.

07:44Our final month's city master plans also include a set of detailed studies in the final phases.

07:50These can be new neighborhood plans, linear development plans along major transport routes...

07:55...or, for example, detailed urban renewal schemes for waterfronts.

08:00Most of our visualization work has a relatively simple but time-consuming workflow.

08:05Increasingly, though, clients want their sophisticated 3D visualizations in a variety of media...

08:10...from the printed report to websites, video, and fully interactive walk-throughs.

08:15It's a big challenge for a small office, as you can appreciate.

08:19They do not just want to be told in words how to implement the master plan.

08:24They want to see it; they want to feel how it would be to walk around it.

08:30And it's perfectly understandable.

08:32After all, most of these plans are going to be subject to consultation by the general public...

08:35...who don't necessarily have a background in reading maps, for instance.

08:42So how have we done such visualizations in the past?

08:44Well, we sketch them, we scan and georeference, we digitize them in AutoCAD or ArcGIS.

08:55It feels pretty antiquated when I stand up here in front of you lot saying this, but...

09:00Import it into SketchUp - yeah, we still use SketchUp - and we also import it into some rendering software...

09:06...when we want to make it extra pretty.

09:09So the different methods and workflows of producing these visualizations add to the time scales...

09:14...just at the point when we need them to be completed really quickly.

09:18We've always used a combination of professional software packages to produce our 3D visualizations.

09:23We have always used traditional hand-drawn images, but then increasingly, SketchUp and for presentational material.

09:30These all take incredible amounts of time to complete in-house.

09:34What we have never done before is produce a complete 3D model of a whole neighborhood, let alone a city...

09:40...because such a task seemed to be just too time-consuming.

09:44Conventional professional 3D modeling packages are good and can do this, but they require too much of our time...

09:48...and effort for anything more than visualizing small sections or details of our master plans.

09:56So after some research a couple of years back, after getting fed up with working with SketchUp for several days on an area...

10:04...I looked at ways of trying to tackle the issues that we'd been discovering...

10:08...and we came across an interesting software tool called CityEngine.

10:13The first license I got for it, I got a discount 'cause I liked it on Facebook. So it's pre-Esri.

10:22Yeah. So an idea for the future, Jack? Maybe?

10:31So it showed its promise purely because it worked with a variety of formats, so I thought it could fit in with our AutoCAD...

10:38...ArcGIS, and sort of SketchUp workflows. I really thought that this could work.

10:42I saw the import/export capabilities of it.

10:46In the beginning, we used real data from a project and essentially experimented with it.

10:52But from the moment I started using it, it became apparent this Procedural modeler would not only save us huge amounts of time... producing the 3D visualizations, it had the potential to totally - totally - change the way we think about our own workflows.

11:11So this is the exciting bit, now, what I'm doing with it now, what I've left in the UK to come and talk to you about now... I'm finally using CityEngine in anger [phonetic] in the way I've wanted to use it, not just sort of in experimental stages.

11:28We're combining 3D work in SketchUp with some of the models in CityEngine.

11:31As you can see, the time taken to model urban areas is dramatically increased [sic].

11:36This model, it's a real model, it took us four days in SketchUp for the same project, four days for a neighborhood center.

11:45And that was done by my father.

11:47And the one on the right, that was done in half a day in CityEngine, and that's a whole city quarter.

11:55Now, there's a lot of work gone into that with the rule files, but that was from previous experimentation.

12:00So actually, the work gets quicker the more data you have, the more rule files you have about it.

12:08So, yeah, a lot of work is up front, but eventually, it gets quicker and quicker.

12:13I mean, it really has been incredibly dramatic.

12:16I mean, we know how long it takes to do it in SketchUp, and it's changed us.

12:22We're now looking to combine, you know, the models we've already made in previous projects and shove them into new master plan models.

12:31So all the assets we've built over time, they're still usable; we're still using them today.

12:38And CityEngine hasn't changed that. It's just allowed us to do more with it.

12:43The other tool we've been using is a real-time rendering package; we're using Lumion at present.

12:48While secondary to the modeling, Lumion improves the quality of imagery we produce...

12:53...and we're no longer waiting overnight to see some of the results of those renderings. So the imagery is quite nice.

12:59It's not necessarily photorealistic, but in urban planning and master planning projects, you don't necessarily need that.

13:07So I'm pretty sure everyone in this room has been on a project where changes are needed just prior to finishing the project.

13:14Yeah, right at the last minute, something comes along; we've missed it.

13:18This slide shows what can happen on a project. They built a bridge without telling us.

13:26Yeah. There's a bit more of a story to it, but this can happen. Things like this happen.

13:37We're discovering at the detailed design stages that CityEngine can allow us to make quick changes to the detailed plans...

13:42...such as a new road, and give us a corresponding 3D model.

13:45This sort of change would've taken significant time just for a visualization a few months, even a few weeks ago...

13:52...but in CityEngine, you can do it in a day. So the turnaround has improved.

14:01Well, I've got ideas for CityEngine and some of the CityEngine folk if they forgive me, please.

14:07I've been bending their ear about it for a while now.

14:11Our next job is an urban renewal project, which will require much more detail...

14:16...than the relatively simple level of detail we have used in our master planning work.

14:20CityEngine seems, to us at any rate, to be able to model at macro and micro planning levels. It's a question of imagination.

14:28But while I'm not involved in the development of CityEngine's tools...

14:31...I'm certain that there's going to be more capabilities developed through it.

14:35I've been working with ways of letting the rule files create its own data instead of responding to the 2D data.

14:42So a lot of the demonstrations you see are taking value from the 2D assets you have.

14:47What I want to see is CityEngine create rather than just take.

14:52So by that, I mean, for instance, choosing points within a city and varying the model depending on its distance from that point.

15:04The beauty here is I can have multiple points.

15:08Could I really use CityEngine to distribute neighborhood centers based on variables I give it? We'll have to see.

15:15I mean, the common thread is we do a lot of planning standards in Excel, and I want to be able to convert those...

15:21...fairly simplistic rules and standards and put it into a tool like CityEngine and it does it for me.

15:28It's the path of least resistance. Call me lazy.

15:34So but until then, try not to think of CityEngine as just being about cities; there's much more potential.

15:43I've already looked at how it might help respond to soils and relief in a forestry model, so why not other areas as well?

15:49This is quick model I did based on height of trees and mix of ages of trees on some open data that I got in the UK...

16:01...and there's some wind turbines in the distance just to give it a bit of edge.

16:10So finally, I come to this term geodesign. I've been wary of using the term in this presentation.

16:17For one thing, it didn't feature in my university courses, so I don't know at firsthand how it's regarded academically. Yeah?

16:25The other reason is I believe a lot of us have been doing geodesign for some time...

16:30...but never explicitly using the term geodesign to describe it.

16:34When I was invited to be a featured speaker, I thought I'd better read up on the geodesign term...

16:39...and one of the things I read was linked to from this summit's website, "Changing Geography by Design."

16:44One particular phrase that stood out for me was "The sketch is key to geodesign."

16:52And you can see a lot of our work has been about the detailed design; that's where we get excited.

16:56Not the strategic sort of broad view but some of the details; we like that.

17:01And in some respects, I'm going to have to worry about this.

17:06If the key to geodesign is sketching, I'm in trouble; I'm in big trouble.

17:11You see, I can't draw. No, really. I'm quite good at tracing, and give me a coloring book, I'm reasonable.

17:22I'm reasonable at coloring, but sketching and drawing, well, I'm not an artist. My three-year-old daughter is, but not me.

17:30Both of my fellow directors - I call them Mum and Dad - can draw; they can draw. They're architects by training.

17:40Not only that, they have at least 30-plus years of design experience as well as being used to work without computers.

17:47Yes, there are people out there that have not learned computers from the start of their lives.

17:52So is it going to be back to the old drawing board for me?

17:57Well, for all my colleagues' artistic talent, today's projects use only a fraction of that.

18:01We're increasingly reliant on vast amounts of facts and figures as well as new theories and models.

18:06The sheer amount of data we now have to take into account can overwhelm the design stages.

18:12So the design process has been forced from pen and paper onto the computer.

18:16For my colleagues' generation, design on a computer is not a natural process, so what happens is this.

18:23They draw designs, and I scan them, georeference, and trace the designs into GIS.

18:28It sounds familiar to what has been talked about already.

18:32It's lucky I'm good at tracing, I guess. You know?

18:37As I see it, the future of geodesign and the emergence of devices like tablets will allow people who are good at sketching... get back to the pure design.

18:44Designers will know what they do is constantly being informed by underlying data, and that if key assumptions change...

18:51...their designs can still be used within a new model.

18:55I suspect I shouldn't have been worried about my lack of design expertise.

18:59Maybe a geodesign program could well be created that will make it look like I can draw.

19:04Until people create that geodesigner, my strength is in systems, workflows, and technologies.

19:10Theirs is in their ability to conceptualize and ultimately produce a good design.

19:14So my hope is that in the near future we will be able to have a natural, almost effortless, approach to design.

19:19This should look as natural as my daughter is doing here, but actually we're harnessing huge amounts of data and knowledge as we do so... fact, just like we already do but on a bigger and better scale.

19:32So this is my big idea, because our workflows are going to change radically in the next few years.

19:42Look at what CityEngine has done for one of our workflows.

19:46It has already cut the time spent the time spent creating a model by more than half and allowed us to keep our 3D modeling in-house.

19:53It will only get quicker as our stock of rule files increases and the software development moves on.

19:58It started with me wondering what a really exciting demonstration of our skills and the power of CityEngine would look like in the future.

20:10Such a demonstration would show how the use of a tool like CityEngine can inform, at all stages...

20:16...the master planning process even from the outset.

20:19This sounds strange, but at present we start with background studies, involve that into a number of growth options for a city...

20:24...and from that, the client chooses.

20:27This happens over months, if not years.

20:29The problem with this approach is that, early on, the client chooses the direction of growth.

20:33But what if the situation changes? Something that's bigger than just a bridge?

20:38It's going to be costly and timely [sic] to start again.

20:41What I envisage happening in the future is that tools like CityEngine and the concepts of geodesign can be harnessed together.

20:46This will allow multiple versions of a city master plan to go through all at the same time...

20:50...then the client can choose at the end of the process a complete city plan, knowing all of its implications...

20:57...from building information modeling to any other measurable indicator.

21:01So they have a true choice in every sense of the word.

21:08So essentially, you could start with a blank sheet, knowing how many people you need to plan for...

21:13...and a default set of planning standards based on the country or region the project is in.

21:18As the project progresses, then more information is delivered - existing roads, terrain, or land uses, for example.

21:25And as each data layer is imported into the GIS, the CityEngine rules you have created run over it again...

21:32...and within your defined parameters, remake the proposed city or growth area.

21:37As the ideas are formulated, new planning policies can be created that are fed into the rule files... that a very specific model for the area is created to show what the resulting urban fabric would look like.

21:51For example, you could take solar data and use that for the basis of orientating buildings in the master plan.

21:58So with a clever rule, whole buildings could be orientated automatically depending on the location in relation to the sun, even in a valley.

22:07I already do this for visualizations with details such as satellite dishes on roofs and mosques...

22:13...that need correct orientation on a citywide level.

22:16I mean, you take the model and you just adjust the slider bar...

22:19...and whole buildings across your city move and individual assets on your roofs.

22:26So it's incredibly simple once you've programmed it into the rule file.

22:31I think the problem with this concept is that it's simple but it requires a lot of computing power.

22:38However, I think we're approaching now a time when computing power is a product of... many machines in the cloud you can afford to have working on the problem.

22:47The instant city idea relies on the cloud computing or a very powerful computer to make it a reality.

22:54What I envisage is a large visual display at a geoconference and many tablets available.

22:59Attendees could contribute to the design process of a city by adding data - satellite imagery, obstacle maps, roads, et cetera.

23:05As each layer was placed in the model, CityEngine would update the city model...

23:09...and GIS would in turn update its analysis, pie graphs, et cetera, all in real time.

23:16This is very much a formative idea at the moment, and we need a lot of development.

23:19Nevertheless, it would be a great experiment and show off in real time some of the geodesign concepts in practice...

23:24...and sort of provide a focus for different professions to come in and share their ideas.

23:33So I have some thoughts - they're just bullet points, really - but there's a number of issues that have come out...

23:41...of me looking at CityEngine and what future uses we could have for it.

23:46One of the key issues I see at the moment is the sheer amount of information we all have access to now.

23:55I can get thousands and thousands of Excel spreadsheets of the minutest detail of my council's spending program.

24:04And how are we going to interpret that? We haven't got the skills, we haven't got the time.

24:09The professionals are doing other things, and the public don't have those tools available.

24:14Well, we're seeing GIS software is getting easier and cheaper, open source development, cloud computing.

24:22So I think those two are going to converge and help one another.

24:31When I talk about sketching as being sort of a fluid and natural process, I just want to tie in some ideas of haptic feedback.

24:38So you have a pen that gets heavier to draw across a particular relief, so you're... know in the database that drawing a road on a steep hill is probably not a good idea unless you're in San Francisco probably.

24:56But it would get heavier.

24:57There would be some kind of feedback back from that to inform the designer that you are doing something that has a cost.

25:05But no visuals; it's just sort of slight feedback, some pushing you in the right direction.

25:13There's some "gamification" ideas.

25:23And I've got to thank James Fee for a blog post on Minecraft he did recently, which is the playground there you see.

25:31But it sounds like I'm trivializing this idea, but there is cost involved in designing things...

25:41...and if you can have that feedback, whether it be haptic or some numbers - every time you digitize a point, there's a cost...

25:49...and if you have a slight reminder on the screen when you're digitizing, as a designer, I think that's going to be hugely helpful.

25:55So not so much competing against each other, but competing against the set of goals that you have in place.

26:03Large rollable displays. It's something I've been hoping for for ages, and it might be just around the corner, just next week. Maybe.

26:13I've seen the process of some of the geodesign elements where you get out a pen and you project your map onto a table...

26:23... and you start drawing, but it's using a weak controller.

26:25It seems to be sort of a cobbled-together solution or you have to buy very expensive computer whack-'em tablet screens to do it.

26:35But what I'd like to see is some more natural technologies come through, so you just come into a meeting and you unroll a map.

26:42And everyone knows that you put a map in front of people and they start talking, but if you can let them draw on it, that's even better.

26:49And if I don't have to trace it - again, I'm lazy. What can I say?

26:56But all of this, all of these ideas really rely on some pretty essential technology, some really basic stuff, Internet connections.

27:08And it's a bit of an issue for us at the moment in that we are based in a rural area, and our DSL speeds are good enough for watching movies...

27:19...BBC, right? - but when you start wanting to contribute to the discussion, when you want to participate in conferences...

27:29...or when you want to upload the data that we've created, we're still having to put some of those on DVDs and send them...

27:36...or leave it uploading overnight. You know, we've got 7 megabytes down, but we've half a megabyte up.

27:42I mean, there's a real consequence at the last minute. We've always got - we could use those two days.

27:48If we had instant upload speeds, we might - we'll buy ourselves more time and we can do some more exciting things with it.

27:56So are any of what I had, my instant city idea, is it impossible?

28:02Well, if you told me some, like last week or a couple of weeks back, you could build a 30-story skyscraper in 15 days a month ago...

28:10...well, I might've given you an odd look.

28:14But they're doing it. There's people out there in China building an incomplete tower block in a factory...

28:21...and then coming out on-site, and in 15 days, they've got themselves a high-rise building.

28:25And I don't know if any of you have seen some of the YouTube videos of this, actually time-lapse photography.

28:31And they're looking at building it in three months.

28:37I mean, so when we talk about impossibilities, we really have to look at other industries and see what they're doing...

28:43...because I don't think anything's particularly impossible anymore.

28:47I haven't done any exciting demonstrations, but I do have this video at the end.

28:52It's speeded up, but it is half a day's work.

28:56I apologize for some of the grainy elements to it; I didn't realize it was going to be projected on such a big screen.

29:03My office is not that tall, so...

29:09Right. So this is what it feels like for me after working with SketchUp and then doing it this way.

29:17That's a utility network. I'm putting in some pylons, and it's super quick.

29:23And it's just a question of writing the right rule file, really.

29:27Going to have a look at a generic office block, building up the model.

29:33You can change all the variables in it - satellite dishes; trams, we can move them along the track; here's a car park.

29:40Do you want occupancy rates? You know.

29:46And you can change the minutest detail in that model.

29:49You can look at an individual building and set the streets up.

29:55So you can really - it's all about scale.

30:00That's the power of CityEngine as I see it; the different scales you can work at are pretty incredible.

30:06And the bridge.

30:09You know, this is where it comes into its own, when you're changing the different types of support structure.

30:18So okay, I'm back again. We're repeating it. You don't want to see it again.

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